Waldorf Schools

swadhaPune’s Waldorf School, Swadha, was started by Shefali in 2012. One of the main ways of marketing the school is through parent presentations. I attended one recently along with 8 other parents. Most of them had heard about the school through a friend. Almost all of them had visited the School website – swadhaschool.org. There were a couple of IT engineers, an architect couple and an automobile entrepreneur. Two of the moms were teachers themselves.

Shefali started by talking about the founder’s philosophy. Herr Steiner lived in the late 19th – early 20th century. He had varied interests, amongst them medicine, architecture, agriculture and education. Towards the end of his productive career, he started his first school – which was in a closed-down factory in Waldorf. The name stuck – today schools that follow the Steiner pattern are called Waldorf schools. In a day where most curricula are quite utilitarian, Waldorf schools stand out as they have pedagogy which changes with the development stages of a child.

Steiner talks of intelligence residing in not just the head, but also in the hands and the heart. Steiner uses his physiology and medicine insights to talk of two major milestones in child development. The first is the time of the milk teeth falling and the other is puberty. He uses these milestones to segregate the educational philosophies that need to be pursued. He calls the 0-7 age group as kids who learn from their hands. (Although I would say that the 0-1 is more learning through the mouth). The 7-14, permanent teeth kids, are ones who learn through their hearts – which means that they learn through emotions, through stories. The post-puberty 14-21 year olds end up using their heads more – meaning logic and reasoning more than anything. Steiner had an interesting hypothesis – that proposed that these 7 year cycles repeat. 21-28 is again play, 28-35 is emotion and story, 35-42 is logic and reasoning. By that logic at 46 – I am squarely in the middle of my playdays J

The 0-7’s learning is primarily through imitation. Shefali narrated an interesting news article about an 8 year old who was found in a jungle in Bihar, crawling on all fours. He never had seen anyone walking on two legs. An interesting experiment from Akbar’s biography comes to mind, where he entrusted a group of new-borns to maids who could not speak. They had no contact with the outside world, except for the maids. They ended up not developing any language skills at all! For imitation to work a child needs practice and repetition. In a Waldorf school, the child imitates a teacher. So a teacher actually needs to paint and draw. She is then adopted as a role model who is emulated. Here is a lesson for parents and teachers. Have our kids ever seen us ‘restfully’ absorbed in a single activity? Or are raised index fingers the most common sight they come across? This gesture is actually an insult to a child. An object of reverence, turned into an object of ridicule. If we see the body as the carrier of a soul, then we need to respect the body even when it is young. Teachers and parents need to nurture with ‘Pause, Grace and Honour.’

Steiner believed that the kindergarten should be a place of pure-play, with as little of instruction as possible. He deemed instruction to be in the domain on reasoning, hence not relevant to this age group. There is no ‘get down to it and do it fast’ stuff at Waldorf. Shefali claims that a young child gets 3000 to 4000 instructions per day. Imagine this happening to an adult! There is no reading, no writing, no matching. Shefali claims that the school doesn’t even encourage intellectual conversations in this age 🙂

The hands of a 0-7 child are used to create art. Not that the school wants to create a band of artists, but the belief is that art forms the basis of innovation and imagination. During these days, the classes are built around themes. There is a painting day, there is a gardening day. There is a rhythm attached to something happening during the day. The child takes these themes home with her and continues them there. There are no close-end activities. No figures that need to be colored in. In the Waldorf school, the kids just explore colours. Red is the setting sun. Red is the Tomato and the Apple.

In the imagination of the children, the classroom takes a different shape every time. Nature rejuvenates. Seeing the sun rise makes your day. The class goes out at least 2 times a month on nature walks, not to gardens, but to surrounding hills. They see nature as it changes – from the lush green of the monsoons to the dry brown of summers. Class decorative arrangements are done using the twigs, wild flowers that kids end up finding on their nature trails.

The development of a set of second teeth in cohort 7-14 indicates that the child’s organ development process is now complete. A signal to start switching technique from hands and play to hearts and emotions. The objective now is to foster imagination. Steiner proposes the use of very simple objects to help with this. For example a piece of cloth. In the child’s imagination it can become a superman cape, a sari, a tent, whatever.. Or simple wooden blocks – which can become a car, an airplane, a brick, whatever.. Or shells, which have been in any case used as currency (the word cowri comes from shell. A phuti cowri is a broken shell – of no monetary use).

In the 7-14 age, the classroom and the boards happen. At that age a child is more comfortable with pictures – she thinks with pictures. We need to enliven this learning by using stories. Stories appeal to a child’s feelings. Kids of this age group live in a world of fairy tales. The phonic ka.. (k) is introduced through the story of the Kind King. The first day the kids listen to the story. A night goes between introduction and enaction. When they go to class the next day they find that the teacher has drawn a kingly K on the board. There are then plays and stories built on the king theme. On the same lines, there is the reverse umbrella – which was so easy to connect to U – because you could see a U in it. There is Hoe’s House. There are the Misty Mountains. In Math there is the + Minister and the – Minister. Shefali demonstrated an interesting way of learning tables.

One tap on the left knee, Say 1, second tap on the right knee, Say 2, Clap, say 3.

After some time only say the number when you clap. Voila! You’ve got the three tables in place. The kids draw 7 sided stars to learn about the number 7. Side by side there is Music. At Swadha, all kids learn the flute.

Activities are done in mixed age groups. Most games and activities are not competitive, but team ones. Activities could be as simple as clay modeling or more involved like understanding the food cycle. They start by composting waste from their dabbas, using this compost for their vegetable patches and end up cooking these vegetables – cycle complete. Festivals are taken very seriously. Kids prepare for and celebrate Diwali for an entire month. Ditto for Id and Christmas.

Also in this 7-14 age group, polarities awaken inside the child. This is the age at which they start seeing their parents as imperfect – which comes as a bit of a shock to them. Before 7, kids are only interested in doing. With feelings at play now, the kids can be mean – ganging up against one of the classmates. So morals are introduced – for example through the story of Gyaneshwar or through animal fables. Kids listen, they reproduce these stories – not just orally, but through dance and drama. Only then does this stuff come into their books. Interestingly at Waldorf schools, children only use plain art books for all writing.

At age 14-21, the body physiology changes again with the onset of puberty. The kids now revisit the stories they have heard, but now they want to ask why. Established norms, which were taken for granted earlier, are now open for questioning. Have you wondered why today’s kids are attaining puberty faster? Has it to do with the stresses that our education system is imposing on them? And is it just the teachers to blame? Some of the parent questions towards the end of the workshop were about transitions from normal schooling to the Waldorf one – and vice versa. But most of the ‘logical’ parents were concerned about the lack of intellectual stimulation in the 0-7 age group!

The school website is swadhaschool.org